'Finding nurses who will speak out is like hunting for Easter eggs'
My daughter stops me: “Dad, Easter is about Jesus dying and being resurrected right?”
“Yes” I said confidently.
“And Passover is totally different but happens around the same time.”
“Uh huh”. I now look around for her mum who definitely drew religion when we divided up areas of parental responsibility.
“Last week it was Buddha’s birthday.”
“Yep. Bit of a coincidence don’t you think? All the different religions having special days at the same time. Do you think all the religious people got together and decided to have their festivals at the same time so everyone would be off work?”
I like her thinking – the bigger picture, interfaith collaboration. And I like the idea of loads of religious people sitting round in a cafe saying “April? Do you have anything on in April?” But I also notice how unknowing I felt in the face of religious questions, how I wanted her to stray back to something a bit like sociology, to organising things so everyone gets a few days off work every four months.
We often make sense of the world on our own terms don’t we? It reassures us, helps us feel close to being in control? But I wonder if it also draws us away from areas of thinking or acting where we might feel less able? Politics for example. Because it seems that so often when the discussion strays toward the political, nursing feels ill at ease and retreats or at least reframes the political into something more homely, like standards or professionalism.
I think it’s telling that while the National Union of Teachers has moved quickly to oppose the suggestion of regionalising pay and doctors have been vocal and consistent in their opposition to the Health and Social Care Act and their defence of the NHS, nurses have been relatively quiet. It was also telling that an article on nursingtimes.net revealing that Health Secretary Andrew Lansley would address the Royal College of Nursing Congress was greeted as an opportunity to express anger – a vicarious anger given the small numbers who will be there. We know there are strong feelings but we don’t know how to express them, so nursing’s political expression will undoubtedly consist of some pursed lips and maybe a slow handclap.
I have always thought it was a lack of political confidence that quietened the largest profession in the public services. A lack of confidence borne of a history of deferring to medicine, men or managers has meant that even engaging with the political world feels like a step too far. But it isn’t just confidence is it?
I know there are many nurses who are politically astute, engaged, intelligent and able – but they do not find themselves speaking or acting on behalf of nurses or nursing. It seems to me the very structure of the profession prevents the politically articulate from ever finding themselves in a position to act.
The RCN tends toward professional rather than political voices – perhaps because it primarily sees itself as a professional organisation – and Unison tends toward generic rather than specialist campaigning. We do not have a tradition of, or a clear training ground for, political activity, for dissent, for engagement.
Nurses have a capacity for creativity, moral clarity and personal courage. In theory they could thrive politically in a progressive and constructive way but something about nursing prevents that expression. Given the government assault on health services, wouldn’t now be a very good time to do something about that?
Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel.